King of the Mountain.
On our last evening in Scotland, I glanced up to the mountain from the back door; a very large bird was circling. Heart thumping wildly, I called everyone together and grabbed my binoculars. Even at 3,000ft, there was no doubt: here were the ‘flying barn door’ proportions of a golden eagle’s 2m wingspan.
Then something extraordinary happened. With the naked eye and still struggling with a sense of scale, what appeared to be rabbits, or hares, poured over the ridge before the soaring eagle. With sudden astonishment, our brains adjusted to the size of the bird and everything fell into perspective: they were red deer, Britain’s largest land mammal. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened next.
With two pairs of binoculars between the five of us, we watched fourteen hinds and calves come down the mountain at a bounding gallop, the eagle in leisurely pursuit. It separated the herd and singled out a fleeing calf, sandwiched between two hinds, and swooped on it repeatedly. With the calf losing pace, the herd stopped to face the bird, which hovered momentarily just above the leading deer. I have never seen a deer look skyward before, but on the ridgeline, the two hinds did just that: looked helplessly up at the great, dangling, feathered shanks of the bird. The eagle dropped onto the calf, hitting it on the withers. It was hard to see what impact this had, but it jinked away and the herd ran to the tree line.
The eagle’s circle now encompassed the rest of the stationary herd, putting them into flight. Again and again the bird made attempts on the running deer calves until they too made the forest. We watched in awe as it drifted back along the ridge without a single wingbeat, whereupon a squadron of ravens (dwarfed by the eagle) materialized from the crags to mob it.
Re-living the experience, packing the car, I considered the eagle’s aim to injure and weaken its prey for another day. A bird like that could surely bide its time. We left as the river gathered the morning mist like a wedding veil. The burns instantly recorded the night’s rainfall in a great tumble of water, throwing it off the mountain like gargoyles do off a church roof – so unlike the slow, filtered fill of our chalk aquifers, they looked like seams of remnant snow; static white forks of lightning.
Round a bend in the river, a red stag browsed myrtle and mountain willow, belly splashed dark with its water crossing. It raised its head, revealing 12 white-tipped tines; antlers that cradled an empty blue sky. King of the Mountain.